Malaysia has a chance for real democracy. But the opportunity can still be squandered

In a world struggling with resurgent authoritarianism, Malaysia is a bright spot. In May, the former opposition, led by Mahathir Mohamad, unseated the political bloc that has essentially ruled the country since independence. To do so, Mahathir’s coalition had to overcome widespread gerrymandering, a history of electoral fraud and a repressive preelection climate. The victory surprised observers — including me.

Yet Malaysia’s government is now in danger of frittering away the momentum of its democratic triumph. Malaysian leaders must act rapidly before the country’s more anti-democratic forces reemerge, the opposition fights itself, and the power and popular legitimacy from winning an election fade.

This is not to belittle the Mahathir government’s achievements. It has made important strides to bolster the country’s nascent democracy. The new government is reckoning with Malaysia’s massive 1MDB state fund fiasco — a scandal in which some $4.5 billion was allegedly taken from state coffers. It has charged the former prime minister Najib Razak, the former first lady Rosmah Mansor, the former head of the foreign intelligence service, the previous head of 1MDB and the former treasury secretary general with corruption and money-laundering offenses related to 1MDB and other scandals.

That’s not all. The government has canceled several prominent infrastructure projects alleged to be tainted by corrupt deals, and it has tried to roll back some of the Najib era’s most repressive legislation, including an anti-free-speech “fake news” law that was helping chill discourse. (Notably, Malaysia still has more than 30 other laws in existence that constrain reporting.) Mahathir plans to make anti-corruption laws apply to the prime minster and his deputy, and his government plans to force Malaysian companies to meet international anti-corruption standards by 2020 and to introduce new ethics requirements for public servants.

Overall, the new, multiethnic government has promised to protect media freedom, battle corruption and assure equality, rights and democracy for all Malaysians. And the end of Najib’s rule has allowed Malaysian media and civil society more space to operate. The Star and the New Straits Times, two large Malaysian print outlets, used to be known for boring pro-government opinion columns. Now they have come alive, printing tough critiques of government policies.

But Mahathir and the ruling coalition probably have only another year or so to push through urgently needed reforms to solidify Malaysia’s democracy. Mahathir is 93 and is expected to serve only a brief term as prime minister. Once he steps down, there is a probability of conflict within the coalition or between the coalition and its allies in civil society — fighting that could consume time and political will. And the further the government gets from its landmark win, the more its power will ebb.

Already, some cracks are appearing between the Mahathir government and its supporters in civil society, who back aggressive measures to boost government accountability. As Asia Times has reported, public approval of Mahathir’s performance has fallen by about 20 percent in the past half-year, partly on fears that his government will not live up to its promises. Mahathir’s government has ruled out allowing local elections, which would give people more say in local affairs. Leading civil society groups blasted the decision.

Most important, conservative ethnic Malay groups could slow down reform. These groups are often fearful that Malays, who comprise the majority of the population, could have their power diluted in a democratic era. Conservative groups have already forced the Mahathir government to scrap its plans to adopt a United Nations anti-discrimination convention, which many Malays feared would undermine their privileges.

Najib’s government stoked the fears of ethnic Malays to bolster his claims to power; now those fears are being turned against the new government. Conservative Malay groups are among the biggest opponents of scrapping long-standing economic policies favoring Malays — even though these arrangements potentially enable graft in government and companies. The new government will have a hard time fighting these entrenched interests. One of the leading parties in the new coalition government, the Democratic Action Party, has warned it could leave the government if Mahathir does not follow through with promises of reforms.

In addition, the former ruling coalition, once led by Najib, retains power in the upper house of the legislature. Wielding its control of the upper house, it is using its power to water down proposed reforms, such as attempting to block the repeal of the anti-«fake news» law.

Interfaith tensions also have the potential to absorb the government’s time and stall reform. The shift in control of government has led many ethnic minority groups to advocate more forcefully for themselves. This is a potentially positive change, but ethnic minorities’ advocacy also increasingly provokes a backlash from some Malays, as exemplified by a recent melee at an Indian temple.

Without a doubt, Mahathir’s government has made important strides, yet it still has to deliver more. Other Southeast Asian states, such as Thailand, saw their democracies falter in part because elected autocrats were able to dominate weak institutions, which were never made strong enough to protect democracy in times of peril. Malaysia has the chance to make its democracy strong — but the window might not remain open for long.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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